Obama Discusses the Government and Technology at South by SouthWest

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President Obama gave his opinion on the controversial dilemma between the federal government and Apple Inc. On Friday, March 11, 2016, Obama placed his support behind law enforcement. The New York Times reported that despite not being able to reference the ongoing matter directly, Obama said, “Law enforcement must legally be able to collect information from other electronic devices.”  Obama spoke on the reach of technology in everyday life while delivering a keynote speech at South by Southwest, an annual technology, film, and music festival.

The Obama administration and technology companies, such as Google, Twitter, and WhatsApp are strongly against the idea that the federal government should have any way of getting past the encryption software that has been built into Apple iPhones. President Obama spoke to an audience of 21,000 tech executives and fans at the Austin, Texas, festival and elaborated on the role of technology and the government. The Times reported that the crowd seemed slightly taken aback at hearing this perspective from the progressive president who had been discussing the ongoing work of his administration with the up and coming Silicon Valley powerhouses.

Obama prefaced his stance by stating that through technology and globalization the world was changing so fast, the changes that sprang forth could be either positive or disruptive. The empowerment that technology can bring is similarly malleable. He said his challenge as president was to find ways where positive change was taking place in technology and help push the government into utilizing the positive shifts.

The president discussed making public interaction with the government easier through technology to bring about a two-way exchange. This would allow a person to give their feedback, as well as make things easier and more streamlined. An example the president pointed out was to encourage the use of forms available online, such as financial aid and social security when he discussed how everyone could make the system work better. He stated when the government is openly frustrating and appearing not to work for the citizens; trust is lost.

He clarified that while data and information gathering might be used, it would only be to make things easier on a larger scale. This could be applicable to community leaders and organizers, which could help society in new and exciting ways. Obama professed, at the end of his final term, he wanted to utilize technology across skill sets and disciplines within the government.

Obama said, when the government works well, it is easy to take for granted. He joked that the fiercest libertarian, who hates the government, might still check the weather on his phone and the only reason he would know if it was 70 and sunny, or 60 and rainy, would be due to a government satellite.

The Texas Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith hosted the keynote speech and pointed out the two worlds of technology and government could not be more different. The government is slow and outmoded while technology is constantly evolving. How could the president hope to bring the two together? Obama referenced his Affordable Health Care Act and the website that had failed, which he admitted, embarrassed him.

He laughed, “I was supposed to be the cool early adapter president who used social media.” He explained that the outdated system being used did not work well with the new software for the website. So he brought in a team of software experts who, in a matter of months, fixed the healthcare website. Obama said that the issue and its solution made his administration realize the regular utilization of the technology talent pool made an enormous difference in the way certain aspects of the government had been run.

Therefore, he calls the rotating pool of experts on loan from companies like Google and Twitter, the U.S. Digital Services. Thanks to them, everyone from small business owners to veterans have been serviced by the government through the use of technology.

Different government agencies that once took a lot of time to do a small amount of work, due to technology now have new ways of communicating with each other, and they are capable of helping the public like never before. The president said that he wanted to keep the effort going to foster constant improvement in the way the government helps the public. When he spoke to those working in U.S. Digital Services, they agreed that what they were providing a great service, and would gladly continue to do so.

Civic engagement is necessary. President Obama pointed out that everyone, no matter what their given field, should try and become engaged in some way to make their voices heard, and utilize their skills for the betterment of the country we live in. An example of how his administration wanted to go further in applying technology to everyday life was to ensure that everyone in the country had access to the internet including those in rural areas and government housing.

He introduced plans with the intent to reach people and offer education through e-books. Obama wants to ensure everyone has a voice through the use of social media, leading the way to opportunity. The president stressed that he was as big a fan of worldwide opportunity, as he had been when he took office.

While the empowered citizen was a hallmark of the keynote speech, President Obama also discussed the issue of the federal government’s access to smartphones. He said new questions have been asked of the federal government and its role in public security, since the use of technology and the Snowden incident.

The President agreed that privacy and safety were important, however, if there was an encryption that could not be broken, he questioned how wrongdoers would be apprehended. He stated that we while we allow for other concessions, such as the police rifling through your clothes if you are under suspicion of a crime, we should not think our data is different and could be walled off.

According to The Texas Tribune, Obama maintained that he was usually on the civil liberties side of the issue, but the dangers were real. He warned the crowd at South by Southwest, if the plan to balance the risks were not implemented now, an encryption bust would likely happen later. The chance of it being rushed would be all the higher and more dangerous. He cautioned against taking an “absolutist” side on the issue. He stressed it was important that the greatest minds in technology be given the chance to find a solution, which would allow for both citizen safety and government intervention when needed. Obama ended his speech by asking the country to get involved as a whole.

By Juanita Lewis
Edited by Cathy Milne and  Jeanette Smith


The Texas Tribune: Interactive Keynote by President Obama
The New York Times: Obama, at South by Southwest, Calls for Law Enforcement Access in Encryption Fight
NPR: Here’s What Obama Said At SXSW Festival
Huffington Post: These Are The Tech Companies Supporting Apple Against The FBI

Image Courtesy of Toshihiro Gamo’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License